It wasn’t your typical night out at the movies.
At a recent Jacksonville screening of the MLK biopic Selma, a who’s who of the city’s African-American business and political elite hobnobbed in the crowd, buying popcorn and snapping selfies with the rest of the moviegoers.
Community activist Chevara Orrin, the daughter of the late civil rights leader James Bevel (who marched with King, and was portrayed by hip-hop star Common in the film) organized the event.
Before the movie played, Orrin made a point of recognizing an all-star lineup of the prominent local African-American trailblazers on hand: taking a bow were U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown of North Florida, (the first African American since Reconstruction elected to Congress from Florida), former state Rep. Betty Holzendorf (first local African-American woman elected to the Florida Senate), former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover (the first black sheriff in Florida since Reconstruction), former state Sen. Arnett Girardeau (the first African American to join that body).
AND current Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.
Brown, of course, is the first African-American mayor in Jacksonville history (and the first Democrat to hold the office in 20 years).
The difficulty of being first in that role, Brown’s African-American supporters say, hasn’t been adequately acknowledged.
“This mayor faces unbelievable challenges that no mayor in the history of Jacksonville has had to face,” says Justin Spiller, a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
“Being the city’s first African-American mayor and the first Democrat in 20 years, with a City Council that has been controlled by Republicans, has forced him to be extremely cautious and strategic in his governing and decision-making process,” adds Spiller, who is also African-American.
Brown, who has been heavily criticized for refusing to take positions on controversial issues like updating the city’s human rights ordinance to cover gays and lesbians, has less political room to maneuver, argues Spiller.
(Worth noting: at the Selma screening, Orrin, founder of the local advocacy group We Are Straight Allies, made a rousing call for passage of the updated HRO, as Brown looked on).
Jacksonville’s cultural conservatism and history of racial strife are certainly factors in what’s expected to be a tough re-election fight for Brown, say others, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Ray Alford served as Jacksonville’s first black fire chief from 1995-2003.
“It’s not just about race,” Alford says.
“Remember, he’s not just the city’s first African-American mayor, he’s the MAYOR. He must represent the entire city, and you can’t please everyone. He must retain the Democrats who supported him the first time, and also get enough crossover votes from Republicans and Independents, as he did four years ago.”
“What’s interesting is, in Jacksonville there are actually more registered Democrats than Republicans. And there may be some Democrats in the black community who think he should have done more.”
But Alford says, “African-American voters who supported him before will see him as the choice. And citywide, people will understand, we’ve had a lot of improvement. We’ve got a lot of new companies coming in, the economic situation is improving. I think he’s going to be victorious.”
The Jacksonville mayor’s race has generated interest far beyond the Duval County line, with an array of GOP heavyweights — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, among others, supporting Republican candidate Lenny Curry.
Curry, who used to chair the state Republican Party, is also posting impressive fundraising totals, and has the backing of most of North Florida’s GOP kingmakers, like developer Peter Rummell, who supported Alvin Brown the last time around.
They’ve since switched allegiance to Curry, the conventional wisdom goes, over concerns with the way Brown has run City Hall.
Nonsense, says Spiller. An admitted partisan, he still sees the Jax mayor’s race as a proxy for a much bigger fight.
“Jacksonville is the GOP’s last stand of a major city in the state of Florida. Alvin Brown’s election was proof that a Democrat can win in a Republican-leaning city, and Alvin Brown’s re-election would be confirmation that city politics is local, and that Democrats don’t just govern for Democrats. They are able to govern successfully for all people.”